By William Marling
It is often noted that American film noir owes a deep debt to writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask. The problem with this genealogy is that Black Mask was part of a complex national response to crime that was continually evolving. Those writers and that magazine were important (and are treated below),
but a richer understanding of noir narrative would begin with newspapermen such as Jack Lait, Ben Hecht, and William R. Burnett, who chronicled the rise of Al Capone. These authors were prominent in creating the ‘mass public’ for the later emergence of noir narrative. Before 1930 ‘the causes of crime were not elucidated,’ as Andrew Bergman notes, ‘because there seemed little point to it. Crime was a life style, a way of existing in the world.’ Explanations would come later, as crime itself and the audiences for narrative about it changed. After the initial public for crime narrative formed, there were three successive ‘counter publics,’ each focusing and refining characteristics of its antecedent.
Al Capone, after a brief, violent career in Brooklyn, moved to Chicago in 1923. When his South Side gang took up arms against the North Side gang over bootlegging turf, he made organized crime into a national topic. The murders, which began in 1924 and peaked with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, fascinated a national readership. Seven books on Capone appeared between 1929 and 1931. After Capone’s fall, the newspapers turned to John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. As some of their names imply, these criminals were supposed to have a ‘style,’ and they redefined myths about individual upward mobility. Writers such as Jack Lait of the New York Daily Mirror, Damon Runyon of the New York American, and Ben Hecht and John Bright of the Chicago Daily News understood Capone and other gangsters as literary capital, and that they could give them a style attractive to Hollywood.
One aspect of this style was argot. Jack Lait (1883-1954) popularized gangster speech and even compiled glossaries. His Beef, Iron, and Wine (1916) introduced Americans to ‘yeggs’ who spoke with Brooklyn accents and called women ‘twists.’ Lait gave his gangsters a distinct patois and nonchalance; he was first to elevate the ‘gangster moll’ into a full-fledged character and first to debunk the pseudo-evil of ‘Chinatown’ in his ‘Confidential’ books on New York and Chicago. Better known was Damon Runyon (1880-1946), initially a sportswriter covering baseball and boxing for the New York American, a beat that led him to the circle of mobster Dutch Schultz. His collected stories of small-time hoodlums, in Guys and Dolls (1932), were told by an uninvolved first person narrator, entirely in the present tense, employing signature phrases such as ‘ever-lovin’ wife,’ ‘more than somewhat’ and ‘loathes and despises.’ Runyon never used contractions or the conditional voice, and as Adam Gopnik notes, ‘The Narrator has to be careful; he is telling stories, often, of what elaborate politesse it takes to keep from getting killed, and his care is the source of a lot of his comedy. A wise guy on the lower end of the totem pole is of necessity an expert in courtesy.’ Runyon’s column had a readership of 10 million, and he covered the famous Gray-Snyder Trial in 1927, a source of James M. Cain’s plot for The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Like Capone himself, the chroniclers of crime for the mass public moved west. Ben Hecht (1894-1964) began writing for the Chicago Journal when he was sixteen and in 1921 launched his column ‘1001 Afternoons in Chicago’ at the Chicago Daily News. Unlike Lait’s and Runyon’s, Hecht’s fictive world is not created by precise demography and geography but through print, theater and other media. A collection of his columns appeared in 1922, and Hecht went to Hollywood in 1926. Mining his Chicago material, he wrote the screenplay for Joseph Von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) and collaborated with Charles McArthur in 1928 on The Front Page. Hecht and William R. Burnett, another Midwesterner, co-wrote the script of Scarface (1932), a film whose ‘all-but-suffocating vitality is a kind of cinematic version of tabloid prose at its best,’ writes Richard Corliss. To the argot of Lait and Runyon, Hecht added repartee and faster plotting with unexpected turns. Hecht never wrote for the pulps, instead spending two-to-twelve weeks a year in Hollywood (earning up to $100,000) before returning to New York to do his ‘serious’ writing.
William R. Burnett (1899-1982) ‘might be considered the chronicler of the gangster in the same way that Zane Grey was the chronicler of the Westerner,’ notes William K. Everson. 11 Burnett left his civil service job in Columbus, Ohio in 1925, taking with him five unpublished novels. His new job as night clerk of a seedy Chicago hotel introduced him to hoodlums, hobos and boxers. A gangster friend introduced him to the mob.
Burnett wrote it all down, in disarmingly simple prose, in Little Caesar (1929). As Piers Gray notes, ‘the focus of [his] language – spare, direct, demotic – is brilliantly intense and in its intensity reveals something about writing.’ 12 Paramount turned Burnett’s novel into a classic starring Edward G. Robinson, who portrayed a Chicago gangster similar to Al Capone. Invited to Hollywood to write films, Burnett blazed the geographic arc
that typified these early authors of noir source material. They developed their skills and sense of audience in New York, Chicago or other large Eastern cities, and then they went to Los Angeles. Burnett, after he arrived, continued to write novels, the best known being High Sierra (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).13 He also turned these into film scripts, some as often as three times.
Crime and decay consume Burnett’s small towns, but he differs from others in this group in creating a lost world of bucolic nature to which his protagonists often try to return. Even as they are drawn inexorably into a criminal plot, they pine for the bluegrass horse-farms of Kentucky or fishing-holes in Indiana. Burnett united the plots by emphasizing the reach and power of large organizations, usually the police. Burnett and Hecht co-wrote Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932), even more obviously the Capone story, as well as the source novel for Dr. Socrates (William Dieterle, 1935), which was remade as King of the Underworld (Louis Seiler, 1939) and as Bullet Scars (D. Ross Lederman, 1942). Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle was also filmed three times: by John Huston in 1950; as The Badlanders (Delmer Daves, 1958) and as Cool Breeze (Barry Pollack, 1972). 14 Bruce Crowther notes that Burnett’s screenplays while still ‘ostensibly in the cops versus gangsters mould, blur the conventional boundaries of the day.’15 In Beast of the City (Charles Braban,1932) Burnett has the criminals walk free due to legal loopholes, whereupon the frustrated police ‘take matters into their own hands and gun down the villains.’ This, writes Crowther, foreshadows ‘the kind of movie Clint Eastwood was to make his own 40 years later.’ On the other hand, in High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941) Burnett’s depicted a criminal whose toughness is pierced by a crippled girl who needs an operation. In The Asphalt Jungle, a meticulous jewel-heist plotted by a pseudo-Nazi mastermind crumbles due to sexual infatuations. Burnett took the crime plot as far into the mainstream as possible.
Less well known is John Bright (1908-1989), a copy boy and reporter at the Chicago Daily News, who hung out in Capone haunts. At nineteen he published Hizonner Big Bill Thompson, a muck-raking biography of Chicago’s mayor. The mayor sued and Bright moved to Hollywood, where he began writing gangster stories with Kubec Glasmon. Their capital was a 300-page manuscript called ‘Beer and Blood,’ into which they packed
everything they knew about Chicago. Warner Bros. paid $2,800 and cut it down to become The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931).16 Some of the film’s famous moments were based on Chicago gangster Earl ‘Hymie’ Weiss, who the authors claimed had once slammed an omelet into the face of his loquacious girlfriend.
This film was taken to be ‘realistic’ and even cited in sociological debate, which Daryl F. Zanuck and others seized upon to legitimize gangster films. 17 Bright and Glasmon wrote several more gangster films before splitting up in late 1932. 18 All the writers above, hailing from Chicago or New York, sources of the Capone legend, wrote about criminals. They were newspapermen writing for a broad national ‘public,’ an audience that read papers and magazines, that saw newsreels and films, that was generally Christian and bourgeois, likely to be employed but concerned about the growing Depression, and formed by domestic family life and heterosexual polities. Their ability to address this public carried them to Hollywood, where they became highly-paid script-writers.19
A second group of noir writers – Hammett, Chandler and others – wrote about detectives, for a smaller ‘counter-public’ that read pulp magazines. This ‘counter-public’ dissented from some of the assumptions in the discourses addressed to the broader ‘public.’ This industry centered on New York City, where a colony of low-paid writers grew up in the late 1910s and early 1920s to supply the boom in pulps. Over 20,000 magazines
were published in the U.S. by 1920, with titles such as Detective Stories, Argosy All-Story or the more lurid Police Gazette, most of which offered readers 150 pages of fiction for ten or fifteen cents.20 Between 1920 and 1950, 175 different detective magazines graced the news-racks. Some of the pulp writers, using a dozen names, wrote 1.5 million words a year. ‘A million words a year is so usual,’ wrote Frank Gruber, who credited this
outpouring to the invention of the typewriter. 21 This ‘counter-public’, still attracted to violence, sublimated its interest through the moralistic and anti-criminal behavior of the detective; in this respect it was both more idealistic and more masculinist than the newspaper ‘public.’ It hearkened back to an era when command and domination were male prerogatives.
The first significant writers in this group had begun to appear around 1923 writing for Black Mask. The magazine rose to premier detective pulp under editor Joseph T. Shaw, a former Army saber instructor disgusted by the state of public morals. ‘The greatest change in the detective story since Poe,’ states Russell B. Nye, ‘came in 1926 with the emergence of the Black Mask school of fiction.’22 Shaw had a romantic sense of his
counter-public, quite different from the undifferentiated national news audience of Runyon or Hecht. The Black Mask reader, he wrote, ‘is vigorous-minded; hard, in a square man’s hardness; hating unfairness, trickery, injustice, cowardly underhandedness; standing for a square deal and a fair show in little or big things, and
willing to fight for them … and always pulling for the right guy to come out on top.’23
Shaw inherited the famous pulp writer Carroll John Daly. Daly had created a hero who remedied his personal defects, Race Williams. Race was focused, crude, illiterate, opinionated, and a crack shot who slept with a gun in his hand. He first appeared in ‘Knights of the Open Palm’ (June, 1923).24
Race recovered the mythic qualities of the avenging knight and his immersion in an ‘under world’ that had been missing in the Capone era, when murder had become prosaic and vulgar. In contrast to criminal argot, Race was simply blunt: ‘I do a little honest shooting once in a while – just in the way of business [but] I never bumped off a guy what didn’t need it.’ In The Snarl of the Beast (1927), Williams said that
‘right and wrong are not written on the statues for me, nor do I find my code of morals in the essays of long-winded professors. My ethics are my own.’
As an editor, Shaw’s coup was to convince Dashiell Hammett, an ailing ex-Pinkerton agent, to write for the magazine. Hammett’s knowledge of real detective work – that it involved stake-outs as well as chases, interviews as often as fisticuffs – gave the magazine the tone of authenticity. At the time of his first appearance in Black Mask (late 1922), Hammett was working as an advertising copy-writer at Samuels Jewelry in San Francisco. In his third story he introduced the famous ‘Continental Op,’ who also narrated Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929).
From 1926 onward, Hammett was not only the most famous writer at the magazine
but an overwhelming influence. In eight years he wrote over fifty stories for Black Mask, as well as stories for eight other pulps. Tall and sartorially elegant, he became a celebrity just as the stock market crashed. After Warner Bros. bought the rights to Red Harvest, Hammett completed The Maltese Falcon (1930), which introduced Sam Spade and was filmed in 1931 and 1941, and The Glass Key (1931), filmed in 1942 (Stuart Heisler). Then Hammett too moved to Hollywood.25 In his ‘hard-boiled’ period, Hammett created heroes who were fiercely idealistic and independent; they were tougher than the Capones whom they brought to justice (but seldom killed) and, while verbally direct,
more polished in locution. Anticipating the worst of the Depression, Hammett’s heroes from 1924 to 1933 absorbed beatings and abuse, suggesting narrative terrain that Horace McCoy would later take up. Hammett also eschewed gangster ‘molls’ in favor of naïve ‘wandering daughters’ and archetypal femme fatales, kindling heterosexual temptations for his protagonist. He often went out of his way (as in The Maltese Falcon) to malign
homosexuality, his hero displaying a kind of controlled male rage that reduced all social interaction to a calculus of domination.
In Hollywood Hammett managed to work on six movie-scripts, but he left unpaid bills everywhere and developed a reputation for unreliability. He had no hand in either version of The Maltese Falcon (Roy Del Ruth, 1931; John Huston, 1941), but the publicity value of his name on any film was huge.But in 1934 Hammett changed direction with The Thin Man (1934). Nick and Nora Charles are married, he a bon vivant and she a charmer. Their high-speed repartee harked back to The Front Page of Hecht or forward to The Philadelphia Story (1940). There were many sexual innuendos, all of them hetero-normative. The “thin man” of the title, Clyde Wynant, is an inversion of the “fat man,” Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. This points to the way Hammett modeled the svelte and sinuous aesthetic of art moderne. In his earlier writing about advertising, Hammett had used the term “meosis” to designate understatement that suggested this
emerging design vocabulary. Basically metonymic and implicative, this style embraced stream-lining, aerodynamics, and elimination of the unnecessary — it applied to manufacturing, the workplace and film. Hammett, however, wrote no more film scripts or source material for movies. His drinking finally overtook him, and a stint in prison after tangling with the McCarthy Committee aggravated old lung problems. He died at Lennox Hill Hospital, where he had gone to dry out, on January 10, 1961. 26
Frederick Lewis Nebel (1903-1966) sold a story to Black Mask in 1926, and Cap Shaw mentored him, eventually printing 67 of his stories. Nebel published at least one item (and sometimes three) every month for almost twenty-five years. He invented the team of Captain Steve MacBride and a female newspaper reporter known simply as Kennedy. Nebel sold rights to the pair in the 1930s to Warner Bros., and nine films were
made featuring them, the best known being Sleepers West (Eugene Forde, 1941). When Hammett quit, Shaw turned to Nebel, who created Donny Donahue and kept him investigating for five years. Writing up to five thousand words a day, Nebel had five and six serial heroes in action from week to week. MacBride and Kennedy (Mike Shayne/ Kay Bentley on film) lasted eight years and thirty-six stories. But having heard Hammett’s comments on Hollywood, Nebel would not work on movie adaptations. 27 ‘His characters are genuinely hard-boiled,’ wrote critic Will Murray; they are ‘insular, pragmatic men … survivors who pride themselves on their toughness and their ability to take it … in the grim world of Depression America in which survival is the guiding imperative.’ 28
Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) sent stories to Black Mask that were at first rejected, but one story was accidentally returned with editor’s comments. Gardner used them to rewrite ‘The Shrieking Skeleton’ (December, 1923) and created a series hero, Ed Jenkins, who debuted in January 1925. Jenkins was a perpetual favorite in reader polls, appearing in 73 stories over eighteen years.29 In one year, 1926, William Nolan estimates that Gardner sold a million words, ninety-seven stories, including twenty-six to Black Mask. 30 Cap. Shaw prized the Ed Jenkins series so much that he turned down Gardner’s novel about a young lawyer named Perry Mason (The Case of the Velvet Claws, 1933).
After that book Gardner abandoned law and wrote full time. 31 Francis Nevins writes that this work is ‘steeped in the hard-boiled tradition of Black Mask’ and that Perry Mason is ‘willing to take any risk for a client.’ 32 After studios purchased his first novels, Gardner moved to Hollywood, not to write scripts, but to learn how the industry worked and be close to the center of production. Over the next decade he became a
narrative machine: he invented more series characters – Doug Selby, Lam and Cool, Pete Wennick – while keeping complete control over the filming of his material. Gardner is significant to film noir in several ways. As Leroy Lad Panek points out, Gardner de-emphasized ‘clues’ per se, instead blending them with the personae of his characters. 33 The detective is more involved in reading character then, and characters seem ‘fated’ rather than caught. In his Perry Mason series, Gardner created the lawyer/investigator pair who were the last resort of innocents about to be crushed by the massive legal system. These stories were divided into an initial legal investigation and a court trial – the form of ‘legal drama’ of television – and they established the notion of the
omnipotent state that writers like James M. Cain would soon depict.
After Hammett, Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959) is the most important writer in the hard-boiled genre, and he was the best movie writer of the major novelists. In 1932, the cellar of the Depression, Chandler was fired from a cushy job in the oil industry, which had acquainted him with the squalid side of business and corrupt government officials. ‘Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast, I began to read pulp magazines,’ he wrote: ‘This was in the great days of Black Mask and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect.’ 34 Chandler brought something new to detective fiction — his education, his literary background. The Los
Angeles that he took for his setting was undergoing change. The population quadrupled in twenty years, and by 1930 the city seemed to him flooded with Okies and immigrants, and cowboy crooners.35 A painfully slow writer, Chandler combined the plots of two Black Mask stories, ‘Killer in the Rain’ and ‘The Curtain,’ to create The Big Sleep, which he sent to Knopf. It sold well, went to paperback, and then sold to Hollywood. 9
Chandler earned $2,000 and turned his back on the pulps. 36 From the start, studios were attracted by his literary qualities, his metaphors, and his ability to write scenes with sharp dialogue. In Chandler’s second novel and perhaps his finest work, Farewell, My Lovely, Marlow searches for Velma Valento, the former flame of old style gangster Moose Molloy. A brilliant pastiche of grotesques, tough talk, and literary metaphor, Farewell is also a morality play about economic mobility. The novel appeared in August 1940 to disappointing sales, but at this low moment, Chandler’s earlier work began to sell, and he was hired in Hollywood. To his astonishment, Chandler earned $750 a week for thirteen weeks. His first job was to turn James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity into a film. Billy Wilder, a detective novel fan, had tracked Chandler down through Knopf. The neophyte took his project home on Friday and on Monday returned with an almost complete script, including lighting directions and camera angles. Wilder and Chandler rewrote most of Cain’s dialogue, which they found spoke to the eye rather than to the ear. Chandler did not like Cain’s treatment of sex, referring to him as ‘a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk.’ 37 The upshot of this collaboration was an Academy Award nomination, for which Wilder gave all credit to Chandler, calling him ‘one of the greatest creative minds’ he had met. 38
Chandler, in his mid-50s, assisted Frank Partos on And Now Tomorrow and Hagar Wilder on The Unseen, but a producer cajoled him into drinking at Lucy’s, a famous bar across from the studios. Eventually he finished the screenplay of The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946), as well as all revisions. The movie brought him more fame (an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, an Academy Award nomination) but doctoring of the final script reduced his contribution. After that, Chandler semi-retired. He consulted on Howard Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep in 1946. William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were the script-writers, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall the stars. Even as he completed The Little Sister in 1948, he wrote his agent that Marlowe ‘is too valuable to let die out. But I find myself spoofing more and more.’39 In 1951 Chandler worked at Paramount for $2,500 a week on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Then he finished his novel, The Long Goodbye (1953), which launched a new era – the socially, politically, racially, sexually, or environmentally conscious detective.
Chandler was a transitional writer in several ways; he created the modern socially-oriented detective story, he understood the scenic construction and dialog of film, and he understood the gap between the pulps’ Rooseveltian masculinity and the realities of modernity. As a famous practitioner of metaphor he legitimized the mapping of the unspoken onto the everyday (such as cigarettes and cars), a technique that film would
exploit. With him, the genre completed the jump to Hollywood. But now a new counter-public was forming, one ‘very different indeed from the bourgeois public sphere,’ to use Michael Warner’s phrase. 40 Unemployment, emasculation, and cynicism – these had been background problems: now they came to the fore. James M. Cain (1892-1977) represents a second shift, addressing a newer counter-public, one that did not subscribe to the discipline or idealism of the Black Mask readership. He achieved success in the
Depression, no time for idealists. Cain’s gift the first-person, confessional form heightened the suspense (and the despair) in his narratives, drawing comparison to Camus’ L’etranger. 41 He first found a job at the New York World, where he drank with H.L. Mencken when he was in town, and with the World, New Yorker or Algonquin Round Table crowds otherwise.42
The most sensational news story of this period (1927-8) was the trial and execution of ‘Tyger Woman’ Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray for the murder of her husband Albert. It tapped strong national fears about 1920s ‘flappers’ and sexuality.
A circulation war among East Coast newspapers, which sent Hecht and others to cover the trial. Cain filed away for later use two aspects of the trial. Without his knowledge, Snyder took out personal injury insurance on her husband for $50,000 and double indemnity in case of death. She instructed the postman to deliver payment coupons only to her, ringing the doorbell twice as a signal. This sign and ‘double indemnity’ became commonplaces for sexual duplicity. 43 The second aspect that Cain remembered was not factual: that Snyder sent Gray off on the train to establish his alibi upstate with a bottle of wine laced with cyanide. But this added detail made the ‘double’ threat of the femme fatale explicit. Offered a short contract, Cain moved to Hollywood in 1930. Despite his gift for print dialogue, he turned out to be a mediocre scriptwriter. After his contract, he began a novel based on the Snyder-Gray case, using the Hollywood principle of the ‘love rack’ – that the audience had to care about characters, hence a love story, and that one of the lovers had to be a ‘losing lover.’ It took Cain six months to write the story of Frank Chambers, a drifter who finds work at the roadside gas station/ sandwich joint of Greek immigrant Nick Papadakis and his steamy wife Cora. The novel came out in 1934 and was an extraordinary success.
‘Postman was probably the first of the big commercial books in American publishing,’ writes biographer Roy Hoopes, ‘the first novel to hit for what might be called the grand slam of the book trade: a hard-cover best-seller, paperback best-seller, syndication, play and movie.’ 44 Cain was in demand. Reprint and movie rights sold; the studios called. He next wrote an eight-part serial, ‘Double Indemnity,’ for Liberty magazine in 1936. Part recasting of Postman, part recollection of his job selling insurance, Double Indemnity portrayed a corporate/legal control of life that reversed Erle Stanley Gardner’s idealistic lawyer. Cain’s lawyers conspired with prosecutors and insurance executives, all of them
crushing the average man for their self-interest. Moved by lust or greed, Cain’s characters fell into a disciplinary machine that amounted to ‘double jeopardy’ and appealed to Depression readers’ sense of helplessness. The movie of Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) became a masterpiece of film noir, but Cain had little to do with it. It was Chandler who converted the first-person confessional form into a series of
brilliant scenes, and Wilder who persuaded the affable Fred MacMurray to play Walter Huff.
Cain next devoted himself to unsuccessful stage plays and to a music-themed novel, Serenade (1937). His 1941 Mildred Pierce was an exceptional portrait of Depression tensions, but it was not noir. Long sections deal with Mildred’s up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneurship, and others with her spoiled daughter’s singing career. In the hands of Ranald MacDougal (with uncredited work by William Faulkner and Catharine Turney),
the screenplay became a vehicle for Joan Crawford (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Cain only returned to the topic of crime once more, in The Embezzler, about the Depression’s most common crime, appeared in Three of a Kind (1943).
Horace McCoy (1897 – 1955) served in World War One and was a genuine war hero, receiving the Croix de Guerre for his exploits as a fighter pilot. His writing career began with “air romances” that he wrote for Black Mask, but when this genre died and an M.G.M. scout suggested a screen test, McCoy went to Hollywood. The screen test failed and the Great Depression hit — he was hired as a bouncer at a marathon dance contest in Santa Monica. Still focused on Hollywood, he wrote up this experience as a script called
“Marathon Dancers.” That did not sell, but he got on as a contract writer with R.K.O. studios, beginning what he called “my notable career as a studio hack.” 45 McCoy finished a novel based on his script, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935). Although later a favorite of French existentialists, McCoy’s book sold only 3,000 copies the first year. It tells the story of failed actress Gloria, who in desperation enters a marathon dance contest that becomes an endurance nightmare. Realizing that this punishment is her life, Gloria convinces her partner to kill her as a testament to the meaning/ meaninglessness of life. By turns lyric and grim, the novel combines irony and fear with a subtlety McCoy would never again achieve. It was not filmed until 1969, fourteen years after his death.
McCoy then thought that he was above the pulps and stopped writing for Black Mask. He even complained about the B movies he worked on: “These bastards never give me a shot at the A pics,” he said. But he stayed with the studios and worked on two more books, No Pockets in a Shroud (1936) and I Should Have Stayed Home (1937). Both were autobiographical and bitter about Hollywood. But, finally resigned, McCoy turned out sixteen original scripts between 1937 and 1940. In 1942 he wrote a major movie, Gentleman Jim, for Errol Flynn. In the mid-1940s French writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Gide and Andre Malraux discovered They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Simon de Beauvoir said that it “was the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America.” 46
What revived McCoy was a manuscript he had been working on, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which Random House published in 1948. Grimmer than anything by Cain, with sections of violent sex, the novel alternated between pure action and deranged first-person narration. Eastern reviewers did not like it, but Warner Brothers bought it as a vehicle for James Cagney, who wanted another “really nasty role” to cement his screen persona. On top of this, in early 1951, McCoy sold an original script called “Scalpel”
to Hall Wallis Productions for $100,000. The novel and the movie were winners, and McCoy was working on a new book called The Hard Rock Man when he was struck by a heart attack in 1955.
Amplifying the fatalism of Cain and McCoy and adding a measure of paranoia, Cornell Woolrich’s writing reflects his aphorism ‘First you dream, then you die.’ When his Jazz Age romance Children of the Ritz (1927) won $10,000 in a First National Pictures contest and was filmed, Woolrich hired on to write scripts in Hollywood. He wrote the gritty novel Times Square (1929) and the autobiographical Young Man’s Heart (1930 None of his romantic fiction selling, Woolrich turned in 1934 to Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly and Dime Detective. But he was too disillusioned to write chivalric detectives convincingly; he arrived at his calling – suspense fiction – with The Bride Wore Black (1940). The pressure, and futility, of time attracted the counter-public that read Cain, McCoy, and Woolrich.
More formulaic than his peers, Woolrich employed a limited number of plots. Nevins divides them into 1) the Noir Cop story (a plainclothes policeman solves a crime, but some sadistic police procedure is the real interest); 2) the Clock Race story (the protagonist or loved one will die unless s/he makes a discovery about who or what is killing him or her); 3) the Oscillation story (the protagonist’s tiny foothold on love or trust is eaten away by suspicion, then restored, in greater and greater swings, until s/he sees that the Other is really evil; 4) the Headlong Through the Night story (the last hours of a hunted man as he careens through a dark city); 5) the Annihilation story (the male protagonist meets his one true love, but she disappears without a trace; and 6) the Final Hours plot (final moments of someone slated to die in a particularly terrible way).47 The best known of his books are The Bride Wore Black (1940), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), I Married a Dead Man (1948), and ‘Rear Window,’ which became a Hitchcock movie in 1954.
Beginning in 1940, the words ‘black,’ ‘dark’ and ‘death’ appeared in so many of his titles that he was almost synonymous with ‘film noir.’ Black Curtain became Street of Chance (Jack Hively, 1942) starring Burgess Meredith. Phantom Lady became a film of the same name (Robert Siodmak, 1944). A rush of Woolrich-based movies followed: Black Angel (Robert William Neill, 1946); The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946); Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946); Fall Guy (Reginald Le Borg, 1947); The Guilty (John Reinhardt,
1947); and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (John Farrow, 1948).48 Of his style, Nevins concedes, ‘purely on its merits as prose, it’s dreadful.’ Likewise his plotting: ‘As a technical plot craftsman he is sloppy beyond endurance.’49 But his long sentences and plot contrivances act as a retarding force against the protagonist’s obvious appointment with fate, creating suspense. At his best, Woolrich creates a divided reading response, in
which complete identification with the protagonist, while desirable, is impossible because of his paranoia, amnesia, hypnosis, or drug use. The character’s initial love or fidelity corrupts, and the reader understands a logic in his suffering. This worked well on film; none of the hundreds of formulaic stories Woolrich wrote in the 1930s is equal to the work that he did as a ‘suspense’ film writer in the 1940s.
World War II created a third ‘counter public’ in noir writing. Millions shared the experience of shell shock, trench hysteria, bombardment, prison camps, and brain-washing: they formed an audience who knew sanity to be precarious. The irrational lived in everyone, and post-war unemployment, lack of housing, or life with relatives could cause a re-irruption. James Meyers Thompson (1906-1977) became the master of
representing narrative psychosis. He published eighteen novels between 1949 and 1965: the most famous being The Killer Inside Me (1953), After Dark, My Sweet (1955), The Grifters (1963) and Pop. 1280 (1965). Meredith Brody writes that ‘the typical Jim Thompson anti-hero is a troubled, perhaps even schizophrenic, misogynist who drinks a lot and kills people when he feels like it.’ 50 Geoffrey O’Brien adds, ‘Most of his
protagonists are evil, the way they might be albino or left-handed. Unlike a good mainstream novelist, he does not lead them toward redemption or even epiphany. He suckers you into thinking he’s telling a suspense story, or a humorous anecdote – but the payoff is the void.’ 51 52
The suckering consists in the assumption that author and reader share a belief by reader share values: as R.V. Cassill notes ‘the society expects you to succeed at something socially valuable, of course, but it gives you the momentum towards success in any case… . The American dream … makes no provision for an asylum for failures… . Even if you are a rotten, murderous piece of astral excrement and know it, you’re supposed to go on and succeed.’ 53 Like Cain, Thompson uses a first-person narrator to develop this disjunction, but he discards the unity of characterization that afforded Cain’s characters some repentance. The Thompson narrator ‘wears himself as a disguise,’ writes Cassill, his failed self invisible and pathological under his social roles and obligations.
In ‘the sickness’, as Thompson’s narrators call it, the failed self can only sometimes manage to bridge the gap between social conventions and the pathological criminal. And finally it dawns on the reader that the narrator is a paranoid schizophrenic. The apparently genial sheriff Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964) uses clichés, platitudes, and social conventions like weapons, bludgeoning people because they are stupid. He knows he is sick, but he doesn’t let readers in on the joke. This technique took Thompson beyond his predecessors, allowing nightmare to comment on reality. There are no values, just The Void. When the Thompson killer laughs, revealing his detachment from humanity, the reader laughs too, but at the horror of such a world.
Thompson’s way with violence made him useful to movie-makers in the glory days of gore. He wrote scripts for Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway, 1972) Stanley Kubrick (The Killing, 1956; Paths of Glory, 1957), Alain Corneau (Serie Noire, 1979) and Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon, 1981 ). Since they could not yet use profanity freely or film explicit sex or murder, they sought from Thompson the techniques for implying
those. Moving his narratives at breakneck speed, Thompson often resorted to clichés, stereotypical characters, or clumsy plotting. Some of his attempts at macabre humor simply fall flat. He never rewrote, often turning out a novel in a matter of weeks. Several novels were published posthumously, but neither they nor his earlier work
approach the level of After Dark, My Sweet (1955). He died in 1976, just as a revival of his work was brewing. He was influential on the Quentin Tarantino-Richard Rodriguez generation of film-makers, though it’s far from clear that he shared their appreciation for kitsch.
Frank Morrison Spillane (March 9, 1918 – July 17, 2006) enlisted in the Army Air Corps the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, becoming a fighter pilot and flight instructor. As a civilian he had been a comic book writer, turning out an eight-page story about Batman, Superman, Captain American or Captain Marvel almost daily. 54 Although he never saw overseas duty, Spillane understood the war’s narratives, in which buddies swore fidelity, enemies were executed ruthlessly, women were sexual fodder, and Communism was the ultimate enemy. Most reviewers deplored his first novel, I, the Jury (1947) for its “vicious … glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods,” not to mention sexual stereotyping of women and violence against them. 55
However, as scholar Frederic D. Schwarz has written, the novel is also one of the first signs of “the darker side of postwar America.”56 Spillane followed with Vengeance Is Mine (1950), One Lonely Night (1950), and The Big Kill (1951). The latter brings together the emphases of the early Spillane: the enemy is the Communist Party and, secondarily, all large organizations, all large cities such as New York, and all bad weather. R. Jeff Banks argues that “McCarthyism as a political philosophy” is Spillane’s modus operandi, but Kay Weibel writes that Spillane’s novels are really about the just-finished war: “The Spillane version of war, however, is a highly glamorized one, in which the impossibility of the hero’s defeat is always understood. Though the wartime ethic and wartime activities are retained, the wartime setting is altered.”
The Spillane protagonist kills or maims almost everyone in the other army, until only one is left, to whom he delivers his credo. Significantly, this last person is usually a woman, and she must be killed, too.” 57 Unlike Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer does not really solve crimes: he is the living embodiment of the Old Testament maxim “an eye for an eye.” He is a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, quick shooting, two-fisted, anti-culture emblem, who has his choice of aggressive women built on the Marilyn
Monroe chassis. Mike Hammer’s sexual trysts often follow acts of violence, seeming like stylized enactments of rape. Unlike Thompson, who excuses his protagonists’ violence by their insanity, Spillane places no formal boundary between Mike Hammer’s lusts and his social roles. Particularly important for noir writing and film, Spillane commodifies sex effortlessly. The femme fatale sheds all chivalric and romantic associations and
becomes a product. Hammer, lacking all but the barest of ideals, incapable of generating either social insights (Hammett) or metaphors (Chandler), seems more of a desiring machine. This flatness did not prevent I, The Jury from being made into a film in 1953 (Harry Essex), the first of twelve features based on Spillane’s work. There were also three Mike Hammer television series (1958-59, 1984-86, and 1997-98).
The late career of Mickey Spillane is indicative of the fourth counter public for noir writing. From the revival television series in 1997-98 to the author’s appearance in beer commercials, Spillane was recognized, in retrospect, as iconic. Scholarship on authors such as Hammett and Chandler mushroomed in the 1980s. In the late 1980s Black Lizard began to re-publish authors such as Jim Thompson, who was the subject of a scholarly
biography in 1995. 58 As this connoisseurship grew, so did a counter public with a consumer audience’s appreciation of the genre’s history; they collected lurid paperback covers and took walking tours of Sam Spade’s San Francisco. Rather than a shared experience of the 1920s crime sprees, the Great Depression, or World War II, this counter public united around an educated retrospect.
The writers who continued to work in noir fiction after Thompson and Spillane tended to be professional novelists, often college-educated and middle-class, who understood how to re-cycle, or parody, the best of their predecessors. Just as cosmopolitan and literate as Chandler, Elmore Leonard was educated by the Jesuits, attended college, and worked as a copy-writer before getting a start in Westerns. The Western genre dried up the early 1960s, however, and Leonard became a freelance copywriter. In 1965, movie rights to Hombre sold for $10,000, and Leonard was able to devote himself full-time to writing; he chose crime fiction because it was hot. After a cold spell, Doubleday accepted The Moonshine War (1969), which sold to Hollywood. Leonard, like many contemporary noir writers, does research. For City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980), one of his best-known works, Leonard camped out in the homicide squad room for months to pick up the slang and speech rhythms of police, lawyers and criminals. Dialogue became his strength: “Peculiarities of speech mark each of his characters as a one-of-a-kind individual,” writes Thomas Wiloch. 59 In fact, Leonard has said that he begins with the character’s name and phrases that will define each character’s speech. “Usually it’s the name. If I get the name right, the character will talk.” He adds, “I may very well write down a character’s background or the way the character talks.” 60 Since his dialogue is so lifelike, his weak plots have not mattered in Hollywood, which by 2011 had made 37 of his stories or novels into films or television shows.
James Ellroy based an entire career on the 1958 murder of his mother, recycling the styles of Cain and Thompson. His major work is the “L.A. Quartet,” of which the first novel, The Black Dahlia (1987), is the best known. It treats two cops, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, both boxers, who share a girl-friend and an ambition to solve the Black Dahlia case. An extraordinary recreation of L.A. police politics, racial and sexual
attitudes, and slang of the 1940s, “Ellroy’s novel is true to the facts as they are known,” wrote David Haldane in the Los Angeles Times, “but it provides a fictional solution … consistent with those facts.” 61 Ellroy continued to “conduct an uncompromising tour of the obscene, violent, gritty, obsessive, darkly sexual” of the historical L.A. underworld in The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992). The film of L. A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) is paradigmatic. Although the L.A. setting was made famous by Raymond Chandler, it hardly resembles the terrain of the 1920s. As in Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), it is recreated on sound stages and back lots. Ellroy himself admits to an early infatuation with Chandler, and then with Hammett, whom he calls “the great realist.”
Another influence is Joseph Wambaugh, the L.A. policeman turned novelist. 62 Ellroy draws on the pulp tradition – his fascination with sexual behaviors and boxing recalls Spillane, Hammett and Thompson. But these threads are noticed chiefly by those who have cultivated a connoisseur-ship in the genre. Noir is by now so thoroughly ingrained in public consciousness that its possible reuses are far from exhausted. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have created “noir” films essentially from scratch, quoting the genre through their dialogue, characters, costuming, icons, or narrative structure, to evoke worlds that are far more inter-textual than the originals.
1 Among the many scholars sourcing film noir in the Black Mask and detective magazine writers of the 1920s and 30s are Bruce Crowther, Film Noir: Reflections in a dark mirror (New York: Ungar, 1989), p.13; Charles L. P. Sillet, “Crime Noir,” in Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan, Eds. Mystery & Suspense Writers, Vol. 2 (New York: Scribner’s, 1998), p. 1010; J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 6; and Leroy Lad Panek, An Introduction to the Detective Story (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), p. 167.
2 Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money (New York: Harper, 1971), p. 16.
3 John Kobler, Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 309.
4 Bergman, p. 6-7.
5 Julie Coleman, A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries: Volume III: 1859-1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 339.
6 Jack Lait, Beef, Iron, and Wine (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1916).
7 Jack Lait, Gangster Girl (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930).
8 Adam Gopnik, ‘Talk it Up: Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls’, The New Yorker, 3 February 2009. http://www.newyorker.com /arts/critics/ atlarge/2009/03/02/090302crat_atlarge_gopnik
9 ‘Ben Hecht,’ Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Hecht. Accessed 12/12/10.
10 Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures (New York: Overlook Press, 1985), p.10.
11 William K. Everson, American Silent Film ( NY: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 233.
12 Piers Gray, ‘On Linearity,’ Critical Quarterly (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 38.3 1996), p. 123.
13 ‘William R. Burnett,’ Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, (Detroit: Gale, 1981), Vol. 59, 68-74.
14 Another version of The Asphalt Jungle is the British film noir Cairo (Dir: Wolf Rilla, 1963).
15 Bruce Crowther, Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror (New York: Ungar, 1989), p. 19. 20
16 Harvey Thew and Henry Cohen, The Public Enemy (Madison, WS: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, 1981), p.13.
17 Richard Maltby, ‘Why Boys Go Wrong: Gangsters, Hoodlums, and the Natural History of Delinquent Careers’, in Lee Grievson, Esther Sonnet and Peter Stanfield (eds), Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), p. 42.
18 ‘John Bright,’ http://www.allmovie.com/artist/john-bright-83016. Accessed 11/21/2010.
19 The idea of publics and counter-publics appears in Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York, Zone Books, 2002).
20 Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1929), p. 210.
21 Frank Gruber, The Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967), p. 40.
22 Russell B. Nye, The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America (New York: Dial Press, 1970), p. 255.
23 Joseph T. Shaw, in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 46. And Joseph T. Shaw, ‘Greed, Crime and Politics,’ Black Mask, March 1931, 9.
24 William Nolan, The Black Mask Boys (New York: William Morrow, 1985), p. 36.
25 Richard Layman, Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (New York, Harcourt, 1981), pp. 125-27.
26 William Marling, Dashiell Hammett (Boston: Twayne, 1983), p. 114.
27 Nebel in Nolan, Mask, 155.
28 Murray in Nolan, Mask, 15
29 Nolan, Mask, 97
31 Ibid., 98
32 Ibid., 99-102
33 Panek, 154-55.
34 Raymond Chandler, Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Ed. Frank MacShane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 236.
35 Marling, Chandler, p. 28 21
36 Ibid., pp. 21-24, 28-30
37 Ibid., p. 37
38 Chandler, Letters, p. 23
39 Chandler, quoted in MacShane, Life, p.148
40 Michael Warner, p. 57.
41 Joyce Carol Oates, “Man Under Sentence of Death: The Novels of James M. Cain,” in David Madden, ed. Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties (Carbondale, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p.111-12.
42 Ibid., p. 527.
43 William Marling, The American Roman Noir (Athens GA: University of Georgia Press 1995, p. 154.
44 Hoopes, 244.
45 McCoy in Nolan, Black Mask, 180-81
46 de Beauvoir and McCoy in Nolan, 182.
47 Francis Nevins, ‘Cornell Woolrich,’ in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Detroit: Gale Research), p. 402.
48 Crowther, Film Noir, pp. 14-15.
49 Nevins, Contemporary Literary Criticism, 77: 403.
50 Meredith Brody, ‘Killer Instinct: Jim Thompson,’ Film Comment, 20: 5, September-October, 1984, pp. 46-7.
51Geoffrey O’Brien, Review, VLS, No. 4, February 1982, 19, ? reprinted? in Contemporary Literary Criticism 69, p. 378.
52 O’Brien, Review, p. 378.
53 R.V. Cassill, ‘The Killer Inside Me: Fear, Purgation, and the Sophoclean Light,’ in David Madden (ed.), Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), p. 233.
54 Mickey Spillane, interviewed by Roy Thomas, “Comics Were Great! A Colorful Conversation with Mickey Spillane,” Alter Ego Vol. 3 #11, p. 1. TwoMorrows Publishing.
http://twomorrows.com/alterego/articles/11spillane.html, Accessed 28 April, 2011.
55 Anthony Boucher, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, (Detroit: Gale, 1997) vol. 63, p. 418.
56 Frederic Schwartz, American Heritage, July-August 1997, p. 98. 22
57 Kay Weibel, “Mickey Spillane at a Fifties Phenomenon,” Dimensions of Detective Fiction, ed. Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1976), quoted in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Detroit: Gale, 1981), vol. 13, 526-27. R. Jeff Banks in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 63, 417.
58 Robert Polito. Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).
59 Thomas Willoch, “Elmore Leonard,” Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, (1997) vol. 53, p. 287.
60 Ibid. pp. 285, 287.
61 David Haldane, Barnes and Noble Author Biography Page, provided by Gale Research (Detroit), 1999,
ttp://shop.barnesandnobel.com/booksearch/ISSH2N0F0017QR401H85G8D. Accessed 15 April 2011.
62 James Ellroy, interviewed by Paul Duncan, “Call Me Dog,” The Third Degree: Crime Writers in Conversation ( Harpenden, Great Britain: No Exit Press, 1997) and The Richmond Review, 1997, http://www.demon.co.uk/review/features/ellint01.html , p.2.
Accessed 11 March 2010.